What remains to be realized in the liturgical vison of the Mass implemented by the Second Vatican Council?
Some Catholics speak of their regret at not having a sense of God’s presence when they enter a modern Catholic church. There are churches in recent years that have been restored to recapture this feeling which Catholics had when entering a church decorated in the older, more ornate manner, with the main altar and tabernacle a central focus. A church in our diocese was recently restored to how it may have looked a century ago. The walls of the sanctuary were repainted in an ornate fashion. Thirty-five statues and eight paintings are displayed in the church, mainly as a backdrop for the main altar and the four side altars. The atmosphere is provocative of awe and mystery at the divine and is very conducive to private prayer.
In contrast to this, the basilica at the Benedictine abbey nearby was redone with the tabernacle in a separate chapel off to the side. The sanctuary is painted simply a light yellow and contains no statues, only a crucifix against the back wall. All this clearly distinguishes this space for public worship from a shrine which would be more conducive to private prayer.
Since the Second Vatican Council, churches have usually been constructed to place the focus on the community, which is “church.” The word comes from the Greek kurion which means “the Lord’s people”: we are church. We are baptized to be ambassadors of God’s love for the world, and the Eucharist is meant to constantly remind us of our calling as one body in Christ. Jesuit Father General Pedro Arrupe wrote:
The rediscovery of what might be called the “social dimension” of the Eucharist is of tremendous significance today. We once again see Holy Communion as the sacrament of brotherhood and unity. …In the Eucharist, in other words, we receive not only Christ, the head of the body, but its members as well. …Wherever there is suffering in the body, wherever members of it are in want or oppressed, we, because we have received the same body and are part of it, must be directly involved. We cannot opt out or say to a brother or sister: “I do not need you. I will not help you.”1
In this same vein, Hans Urs von Balthasar has said:
We must make every effort to arouse the sense of community within the liturgy … enlarging the scope of prayer, so often narrow and selfish, to embrace the concerns of the whole Church and, indeed — as in the Our Father — of God. …[This is] one of the conditions for the presence of the Eucharistic Lord: “Where two or three are gathered together …” — that is, where individuals, in profound faith and obedience, desire to be and to realize the Church — “there I am in the midst of you.”2
As Catholics come to understand what it means for Christ’s presence to be more or less realized through the effort they put into this, they may be persuaded to sit together, at the front, close to the table of the Lord, the better to realize a community come to share their faith. There is an anomaly in the situation, easily perceived by the young, when we sit apart in our own space and come close to Catholics whom we don’t know only for the brief moment of the “gesture of peace.” Joining in the same pew with all our fellow Christians can embolden us to be more Christlike to all others outside of church. Homilies, the liturgical committee, and the pastor’s column in the parish bulletin can lead us to give bolder expression to our oneness in Christ at the Eucharist.
Reflections Upon Some Liturgical Guidelines
Ressourcement, recapturing the spirit of the early Church Eucharist, was behind the liturgical changes of Vatican II. What early Christians celebrated in memory of Jesus was to be restored to its “noble simplicity” and forcefulness, free of distracting accretions. It has been said that it has often taken a century to implement a Church council, and that we are still only halfway to implementing the liturgical renewal envisaged by many of the theologians at Vatican II.
A vibrant sharing among the congregation is facilitated by the priest facing the people and inviting them to take the active part to which they are called as one priestly people. There are also other ways in which a careful choice of options facilitates participation.
At the beginning of the Mass, although confessing our sinfulness is offered as an option, in the New Dictionary of Sacramental Worship Daniel Grigassy writes:
The penitential rite has been experienced in its various forms as a disturbance in the ritual flow of the liturgy, an afterthought between the greeting and gathering prayer. Many pastors and liturgists note this misplacement of the penitential rite. If the purpose of the introductory rites is to make the assembled people a unified community and to prepare them properly to listen to God’s word and to celebrate the Eucharist … why run the risk of individualizing members of the assembly in a penitential mode after they have gathered precisely as a worshiping community?3
The penitential rite, and also the “Lamb of God … have mercy on us” before Communion, can convey the false notion that we make ourselves worthy by protestations of our sinfulness. We should rather see our imperfections as always remaining with us, with the love or true charity signified by the communion bread as the best remedy.
The “Lamb of God” accompanies the breaking of the bread, and the General Instruction of the Roman Missal directs that it be repeated only “as many times as necessary until the rite has reached its conclusion” (GIRM, 83). Often the priest has completed breaking the bread by the time the congregation has concluded the gesture of peace, and a spoken rather than sung “Lamb of God” is more than sufficient. Also, the priest is ordinarily not to go to the tabernacle for hosts: “It is most desirable that the faithful … receive the Lord’s Body from hosts consecrated at the same Mass” (GIRM, 85). By focusing on the bread consecrated at this Eucharist, it is more clearly conveyed that this consecration signifies more deeply our own consecration, our own transformation into the body of Christ on earth. During the Eucharistic Prayer the priest never prays in his own name; it is always “we” who offer, “we” who celebrate. And it is “we” who need to spend some quiet time after communion listening to how God is calling us to speak and act so as to bring the face of Christ into our world today.
Pope Benedict called for amplification of the dismissal at Mass, to remind us that we are all disciples, sent forth to preach the good news of God’s love by our lives. While there are places in the Mass where the priest is encouraged to personalize a transition, some would like to see this extended to the dismissal, where proposals have included those like the following based on one in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer (1892, 1928) and taken largely from 1 Thessalonians 5:
Go forth in peace, have courage, hold on to what is good, return no one evil for evil. Strengthen the fainthearted, support the weak, help the suffering, respect all persons. Love and serve the Lord, rejoicing in the power of God’s Spirit in you, and give thanks to God in all circumstances.4
If this is truly the spirit of our celebration together, then we will be further encouraged to present the face of Christ to the world as Pope Francis has done, and his popularity will become the Church’s popularity.
United in Song
The ritual recommends that the communicants “by means of the unity of their voices … highlight more clearly the ‘communitarian’ nature of the procession to receive Communion” (GIRM, 86). This leads to the question of how to enhance congregational singing. The chief task of the choir is to facilitate this congregational singing, not to introduce variety or enhance a narrowly defined theme for the particular Mass. As Sacrosanctum concilium affirms: “Fully conscious, and active participation … is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy, … the aim to be considered before all else; for it is the primary and indispensable source from which the faithful are to derive the true Christian spirit (SC 14).”
Fostering this spirit needs to become our top priority if the Mass is to become again a serious force, cherished in the Christian life. For this it helps for the hymns to be well memorized, as is evident if the hymn is to be sung during the Communion procession. And the singing is at least marginally better when people know the song by heart. It also makes for better liturgy when the people are not reading from books but listening to the proclamation of the Word and conscious of others around them while they are united in song. To achieve more fulsome participation the ritual also allows for the people’s use of seasonal responses to the responsorial psalm between the readings.
It has been said that it has often taken a century to implement a Church council, and that we are still only halfway to implementing the liturgical renewal envisaged by many of the theologians at Vatican II.
Early Christians huddled together to support one another in a hostile Roman empire. In our increasingly agnostic world, weighed down by individualism, we better realize the power of our faith if, as a believing community, we “lift up our hearts” together in song, in sincere gratitude to God, and in doing so do not fall prey to indifference to the sufferings of our neighbors, near and far. This gratitude leading to a lived response of service is the fruit of a well-celebrated Eucharist.
As long as we focus on what the priest is doing for us, we can remain passive, in mere attendance, and believe that we are achieving the fruits of the Mass. But when we accept that the effect of the Mass relates to our own disposition and depends vitally on our active participation, we see liturgy in a new light. We recognize that, as social beings, we can profit from others’ faith-filled participation in the Mass, and that we owe them our full and active participation.
The Mass has always been the school of catechesis for our sisters and brothers in the Eastern and Orthodox Churches. A well-celebrated Eucharist can speak eloquently about our faith, surpassing even what can be achieved in religious education class. A principle stated in the Directory for Masses with Children is that at adult Masses with children present “it is necessary to take great care that the children present do not feel neglected.”5 Just as important is the experience of the Mass that young people have as they grow up. Does the heartfelt sharing of the community in the Mass warm our hearts each week, so that we will become true witnesses before others of our gratitude for all our blessings and for Christ’s promises?
I have tried to imagine what our eucharistic celebration will look like in the future. I have assumed that solid historical and biblical studies will have a continuing influence on the Catholic Mass, even as they did at Vatican II. We will come to judge the effectiveness of our eucharistic celebration by the help it brings to future generations of Christians who wish to experience a genuine sense of community as they strive to present the face of Christ to the world.
1 Pedro Arrupe, “Eucharist and Hunger,” (1976)
https://jesuitportal.bc.edu/research/documents/1976_arrupeeucharist/, Accessed July 9, 2020.
2 Hans Urs Von Balthasar, Explorations in Theology: Spouse of the Word (Book 2), San Francisco: Ignatius Press, (1991).
3 The New Dictionary of Sacramental Worship, edited by Peter Fink, SJ (New York, Michael Glazier, 1990).
4 See https://acollectionofprayers.com/2016/08/01/go-forth-into-the-world/. Accessed July 9, 2020
5 Directorium de Missis cum Pueris (Directory for Masses with Children), Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship, November 1, 1973.